July | August 2017

Technology Opens Redistricting Process

By Mary Branham, CSG Managing Editor

About Independent Commissions

Twenty states appoint independent commissions to draw the redistricting maps in an effort to make the process more transparent and less controversial. While commissions can be good, Keesha Gaskins, who studies redistricting as senior counsel in the Brennan Center for Justice’s Democracy Program, said there’s nothing magical about commissions. It’s more about the process.
“Commissions themselves are not a silver bullet,” she said. “It does take out one thing the people see as one of the greatest problems, which, of course, is the self-interest of legislators.”
These states have independent commissions that draw the plan, advise the legislature or serve as a backup if the legislature fails to draw a plan.
  • Commissions Draw the Plan: Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Missouri, Montana, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Washington
  • Advisory Commissions: Maine, Vermont
  • Backup Commissions: Connecticut, Illinois, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Texas
Before Utah even began its redistricting process, people were talking about lawsuits.
Lawsuits following the decennial redistricting process aren’t uncommon, but Utah lawmakers took a step this cycle to eliminate some of the potential basis for such a suit.
“If people are going to sue us anyway, let’s make sure they’re involved and they know what’s going on before they get to that point,” said Sen. Ralph Okerlund, chair of the Utah Senate Redistricting Committee, “and maybe we’ll be able to deflect some of that kind of thinking as we go through the process.”
Legislators opened up the process—complete with an online tool—to let anyone who registered, and agreed to draw complete plans, submit a redistricting map in one of four areas: congressional, state house, state senate and state school board. More than 1,000 residents signed up and submitted about 400 plans for consideration, according to John Cannon, general counsel for Utah’s Legislative Research Council.
The main reason for the change, said Okerlund, was to get the public more involved in the process. Therein lies the primary historical criticism of the redistricting process across the country.
“Just the word redistricting raises people’s blood pressure,” said Rich Leadbeater, state government industry manager at Esri, which designed the GIS-based tool Utah used for redistricting. “They just assume it’s bad.”
Bringing more transparency and opening up the process more for public involvement “lances the boil,” Leadbeater said. “It’s one thing to document the minutes of a meeting so everyone can see it’s above board, but it’s another to give them the same analysis tools to come to their decisions.”

GOAL: Public Involvement

Public involvement is one major goal in the redistricting process, according to Keesha Gaskins, who studies redistricting as senior counsel in the Brennan Center for Justice’s Democracy Program.
“When we talk about what’s ideal, we’re really talking about a process that allows for citizen input, that allows the redistricting authority to really understand how citizens see themselves—what communities they want to be a part of, how they’re represented,” she said.
She said it’s not enough to hold public hearings. Those hearings must include the people who are actually drawing the redistricting maps, not just the legislators who will be voting on them. And, she said, legislatures or commissions must build in time to review the public comments and revise plans if necessary.
“What people want to know is that they’ve been meaningfully heard and are a part of the process,” she said.
Utah’s public hearing process allowed anyone who had submitted a map and who was in attendance at one of the 17 hearings around the state to present their plan. Staff could, and did, make changes as the redistricting committee moved through the process, said Okerlund. Many people argued that their county fit better with a different county on several of the maps, he said.
“We actually moved a lot of lines because they had some good reasons,” he said.
Residents in Sanpete County, for example, didn’t like their county being split among three state House districts, according to Rep. Ken Sumsion, chair of the Utah House Redistricting Committee. The county has one of the largest populations in the state. Those residents drew numerous maps to avoid such a split.
“At the end of the day, the whole county was put into one House seat,” Sumsion said. “The public did make a difference and they were involved.”
The same is true for Tooele County. Because House districts were set at 36,852 population, part of the county would have to be represented by at least one other representative. But residents didn’t want the remaining 20,000 people split between two House seats. They made valid arguments and the county, once represented by three people, will now be represented by two.
“That wouldn’t have happened if citizens of Tooele hadn’t been involved,” Sumsion said. “I’m not sure it would have happened if we hadn’t had this online tool to where they could draw maps.”

PROCESS: Technology Changes

That technology is a key to opening up the process, many believe.
Ten years ago, states were able to create more precise maps with deviations down to zero. Cannon said the technology advancements over that decade have improved the process dramatically. In the last cycle, he said, the state still used census block and track numbers printed out and attached to legislation.
This time, everything was electronic, and changes could be made quickly and easily. The final maps, along with all those submitted throughout the process, are posted on redistrictutah.com.
“With our congressional plans, we had 20 different alternative bills that were proposed and we could do that quickly because we could create a block assignment file, burn it to a disk, and send it over real quick (to the legislature),” said Cannon.
Everyone—legislators and the public—could quickly view the plans on their computers, he said.
Gaskins believes the technology advancements ultimately will empower citizens to get involved … if they want to.
“(Surveys show) people don’t actually want to do the work themselves, but they want to know that the process is transparent enough for people who want to do the work to be able to access those processes,” she said.
Technology is allowing that to happen.
“They have tools that allow them to access the process,” Gaskins said. “People don’t need to be powerless in this process.”